Less than 72 hours after THQ announced their plans to declare bankruptcy and sell their assets to private equity firm Clearlake Capital Group, MCV reported that that Ubisoft has been in talks to buy the crumbling publisher. This is about a month after Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot mentioned that his company would be interested in purchasing THQ, should the opportunity arise.
According to the report, Ubisoft has been aggressively bidding for the company's assets, but may not be so eager to buy the company outright. According to their sources, Ubi would apparently prefer to only invest in certain IP, similar to how publishers picked apart the corpse of Midway a few years back.
As with any mysterious financial agreement, there's no way to know if the story unfolding before the public eye at all resembles the timeline of how the deal went down. With that in mind, the revelation of Ubisoft's involvement in this debacle could mean two very different based on the answer to a single question:
Was Ubisoft the company behind Clearlake Capital's stalking horse bid or not?
If they were, then all of the talk about purchasing individual assets is a smokescreen. They've been interested in company and, while they'd prefer to pay as little as possible, they're already well on their way to getting a slew of franchises that not only show massive financial and critical potential, but gives them access to established franchises for game-types where they've never had a big hit.
Of course, If they weren't it was probably for that same reason. There are some franchises the company would think would help ‘em out and some that wouldn't. That situation begs the question: What are the franchises Ubisoft wants?
Here’s a list of the projects being produced by THQ’s studios as of the bankruptcy filing last week. In other words, these are the reasons why Ubisoft, Clearlake Capital, and every other potential buyer are fighting for the right to assume THQ’s massive pile of debt.
- Metro: Last Light
- Company of Heroes 2
- South Park: The Stick of Truth
- WWE ‘13
- Homefront 2
- Saint’s Row 4 (The Fourth?)
- “Evolve” (An unannounced project from Left 4 Dead developer Turtle Rock.)
- “1666" (An unannounced project designed by Assassin’s Creed series creator Patrice Desilets.)
- “Crawler” (An unannounced project from Darksiders series developer Vigil Games.)
- “Atlus” (An unannounced project from Relic Entertainment.)
Of those titles, there are few projects any buyer, including Ubisoft, is gunning for:
The first game is also the simplest: WWE ‘13 would be Ubisoft’s first crack at a licensed sports franchise. It isn’t Madden or FIFA, but it’s a start.
Given that Saint’s Row: The Third’s breakout success played a big role in helping THQ survive as long as it did, the next Saint’s Row game seems like a guaranteed money-maker so long as it doesn’t have to directly compete with GTA V.
Though it’s hard to say anything concrete about them, THQ’s long-term investments, particularly 1666 and Evolve, which have high-profile developers attached, seem like a worthwhile investment with a pair of new consoles on the horizon.
South Park: The Stick of Truth, an RPG written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Industry analyst Michael Pachter, speaking on the Super Joystiq Podcast, said he thinks the game is destined to be a massive hit. Given that the game looks and sounds like a giant interactive episode of the show, it isn’t an undue prediction.
Considering all the good things that would come with buying THQ, you'd think that Ubisoft wouldn't have a problem shelling out for the whole pie… Put it another way - The real question isn’t what they want, but rather; What won’t they pay for?
As a symbol of THQ's failure and critical flop, I wouldn't want to buy the rights to Homefront 2 if I were in Mr. Guillemot’s shoes. Though the original made a decent amount of money — It sold more than a million copies its first month — the Red Dawn-alike was a critical flop and the studio that made the original, Kaos, was disbanded after the fact.
Then again, Ubisoft doesn't have a straight-forward military shooter and, with Medal of Honor possibly crippled, that crowded market is as open as it has been in years. (Of course, it's still pretty crowded, but there is still a LOT of money to be made there.) If Turtle Rock’s project were a first-person it could fill that role nicely, making Homeland a superfluous purchase under even the best circumstances.
Similarly, purchasing THQ comes with the rights to defunct franchises like the Red Faction series, which even THQ wrote off earlier this year. Though they may not be worth much, Ubisoft would obviously prefer to avoid paying for damaged goods. (Even though I think that Red Faction would be a decent candidate for a next-gen reboot.)
What does all this say about THQ?
It means that Danny Bilson, THQ’s former vice preisent of “core games” who signed off on THQ’s current crop of projects, was on the right track.
He may not have survived THQ's sinking ship, but it's his legacy that makes THQ worth $60 million dollars right now, and is the only reason there's still a chance that games will continue to be shipped with a THQ logo.
That's not to say that Bilson didn’t play a role in his company’s demise. In his attempt to rebuild the company as an elite game-maker, instead of a mid-level studio churning out licensed games, he spent a lot of money. Too much money.
He set up long-term deals with big name directors and studios; Tomonobu Itagaki, Guillermo Del Toro, Patrice Desilets, and Turtle Rock. He also gambled big on short-term projects like Homefront and Saint's Row: The Third. Bilson skipped the step where THQ was supposed to leverage one or two major successes to fund bigger and better projects.
If all the cards had landed their way, THQ could've made the turn, maybe even on track to having their own E3 Keynote in five years or so. They didn't, though: Not all of them. Homefront sold well but didn’t meet the company’s Call of Duty-level expectations. Darksiders II did as well as anyone should have expected, but THQ needed a massive hit so that’s what they expected.
Still, the resilience of THQ's latter-day legacy — the is a testament to role of authorship in games. Successes like Saint’s Row were defined by turning generic games into titles defined by aesthetic vision. Their failures, Homefront in particular, showed that there's no substitute for quality design and original ideas. Ubisoft, or any publisher, could do far worse then what they have to offer.
That's why THQ went broke. They had become a AAA studio in spirit, but their balance sheet couldn’t support the weight that comes with that third “A.”